Recent Commentary from Inter Alia

YLPR’s online edition
Susan P. Crawford
Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 2:30pm

Labels are important in policy debates. The “broadcast flag” effort was very nearly successful in forcing all devices capable of receiving television broadcasts (including PCs) to be designed in order to protect “flagged” content. Who could be against a flag? By contrast, “net neutrality” advocates have had difficulty convincing anyone to care about something that sounds so, well, neutral.

One effective label that has often been used during the first two years of the Obama administration is the “looming spectrum crisis.” FCC Chairman Genachowski said in October 2009: “I believe that that the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis.” As the crisis loomed, the administration—worried about the lack of spectrum allocated for high-speed Internet access—declared it would re-allocate 500 MHz of spectrum. There is a hunt on for spectrum: Every closet in every agency is being searched. Looming. Crisis.

It may be time for yet another label to enter the lists: “the looming cable monopoly.” It is gaining strength, and it is not terribly interested in the future of the Internet. This is the central crisis of our communications era.

Frank Pasquale
Saturday, May 15, 2010 - 10:15am

Bottlenecks at any layer of the Internet—physical, social, application, or content—create opportunities for the exercise of undue power over the flow of information and ideas online. Corporate forces menace both user privacy and free expression on the Internet. Market concentration lets powerful business leaders develop unprecedented digital dossiers on users. Such concentration also allows leading companies to pervasively shape culture and politics, elevating some voices and silencing others.

The privacy and First Amendment cases for net neutrality are compelling. But net neutrality’s opponents are inverting the debate by asserting their own rights to “free speech” and asserting a form of corporate privacy-trade secrecy. While Christopher Yoo’s theory of “architectural censorship” has not yet vindicated Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) claims to expansive First Amendment rights, ISPs’ business alliances with search engines and other internet companies that monitor content may make their decisions sufficiently “speech-like” to attract protection from the current Supreme Court, thereby insulating ISP decisions from regulation and scrutiny. Classifying network management decisions as “trade secrets” could also hamper public scrutiny of and regulatory attention to ISPs’ actions. Corporate trade secrecy privileges would make it difficult for consumers to determine if their privacy rights have been violated. Corporate First Amendment protections would likely foil lawsuits (and even some regulation) designed to promote the public interest by ensuring fair, open, and neutral ordering of data flows online.

Legal argument may stop this inversion. First Amendment and trade secrecy doctrines, as applied to ISPs and seach engines, are vague, and there may be openings to establish new legal doctrines on this front that would promote the free flow of information online. But given Google’s success in advancing its legal interests, the recent collaboration between Google and Verizon in developing a “legislative framework” for network neutrality,[5] and the present composition of the Roberts Court, consumer advocates who care about individuals’ rights to privacy and free expression should start moving beyond the legal system to develop more transparent and open alternatives to increasingly unregulable networks of dominant online intermediaries.

Jonathan Zittrain
Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 10:00am

Popular imagination holds that the turf of a state’s foreign embassy is a little patch of its homeland. Enter the American Embassy in Beijing and you are in the United States. Indeed, in many contexts—such as resistance to search and seizure by a host country’s authorities—there is an inviolability to diplomatic outposts. These arrangements have been central to diplomacy for decades so that diplomats can perform their work without fear of harassment and coercion.

Complementing a state’s oasis on foreign territory is the ability to get there and back unharried. Diplomats are routinely granted immunity from detention as they travel, and la valise diplomatique—the diplomatic pouch—is a packet that cannot be seized, or in most cases even inspected, as it moves about.[1] Each pouch is a link between a country and its outposts dispersed in alien territory around the world.

Citizens and their digital packets deserve much the same treatment as they traverse the global Internet. Just as states expect to conduct their official business on foreign soil without interference, so citizens should be able to lead digitally mediated—and increasingly distributed—lives without fear that their links to their online selves can be arbitrarily abridged or surveilled by their Internet Service Providers or any other party. Just as the sanctity of the embassy and la valise diplomatique is vital to the practice of international diplomacy, the ability of our personal bits to travel about the net unhindered is central to the lives we increasingly live online.